Pozieres | Tabora | 3 Aug 1916

Pozieres

We have some fighting worth speaking of at the Battle of the Somme. The BEF’s 36th Brigade is aiding us in our attempt to remind people that it wasn’t just the ANZACs who fought up at Pozieres, where the artillery fire is still extremely unhealthy. The problem remains the same; capture trenches OG1 and OG2 so that Pozieres windmill, the highest point on the Somme, can be directly assaulted. First, the 8th Royal Fusiliers and 6th Buffs are launching a surprise attack on Fourth Avenue, another trench from which an attack on OG1 and OG2 can be supported.

It doesn’t seem like much, but the weight of artillery being thrown around at Pozieres is such that the Germans’ barbed wire has been almost completely destroyed and they’ve been unable to replace it. The men creep across No Man’s Land in the dark, and the defenders are so surprised when the Tommies suddenly appear in their trench in strength, they all surrender. It’s quite the stunt, although the war won’t be won by sneaking into a few hundred yards of trench at a time. Tomorrow the ANZACs take another pot at that dratted windmill.

Race to Tabora

Meanwhile, in Africa. At the western end of the Central Railway, there are seperate British Empire and Belgian Empire detachments now heading for Tabora, the only large settlement for hundreds of miles. The German commander General Wahle has a sizeable force at his disposal; there might just be a chance to isolate and capture it, which would be a much-needed coup. Wahle isn’t interested in leaving without a fight and has been sorting out some proper forward defences for the last little while. More to come when somebody wins the race.

Tanks

It has been said that the course of true love ne’er did run smooth. Neither too did the course of tank development, it seems. Albert Stern has just informed the new Minister of Munitions, Edwin Montagu, that tank production had been based on the assumption that all the initial order would be used in the field at once. Now it seems that General Haig wants to use a few as soon as possible. Problem! There are no spare parts yet. All the manufacturing capacity is being used on building machines, not spares. Only the engines have spare parts.

Mind you, this might not actually be a problem, depending on whose doctrinal views get the most traction. Stern himself, far from a tactical expert, thinks of a tank rather like a missile; extremely useful and destructive when pointed straight at the enemy and let loose, but useless after it’s arrived at its initial target and wreaked havoc. Missiles don’t need spare parts. He’s far from the only person thinking in this way. Opinions on the use of tanks are apparently like rear orifices; everybody’s got one.

Stern himself, incidentally, is unsatisfied with having to manage the Tank Supply Department through a committee. He’s used the wide-ranging powers which he granted himself back in February to dissolve the Tank Supply Committee entirely and reconstitute it as a powerless advisory talking shop. It is of course a reasonable principle of design to put all one’s eggs in one basket, having first made sure that one has built a really good basket. I suppose we’ll soon find out whether Stern is a good enough basket.

Oskar Teichman

It seems that Oskar Teichman’s men may finally be about to go into action at the Suez Canal. He’s discovered a major logistical concern, though.

Our General Headquarters at Ismailia was bombed during the morning. An advance guard of our composite regiment left at dawn to prepare a camp at Gilbaan. During the afternoon we received orders to march to Gilbaan at dawn on the next day. We heard that we were now in the Fifth Mounted Brigade again, under our own Brigadier. I realized that if we went into action on the morrow we should have no Field Ambulance with us, as ours would not be able to arrive in time, and that we had no claim on the New Zealand Field Ambulance, as we were no longer in that Brigade.

A reminder that a “field ambulance” is not a vehicle, although it is considered a mobile unit. The first line of medical support is the aid post. From the aid post casualties are taken to a field ambulance, which makes the decision whether the man can be quickly patched up and returned to unit, or passed back to the Casualty Clearing Station, an immobile large-scale facility.

Oswald Boelcke

German air ace Oswald Boelcke is in Bulgaria, inspecting their flying corps.

I went to the aviation field in Sofia; most of the machines were Ottos. In the afternoon, I went to the flying school. Our guide showed us as special attraction a Blériot, which he had. The school is still in the first stages of development. From there we went to the resort called Banje, which is nicely located. In the evening, I was at supper with a military attaché, and met Prince Kiril. He interested me very much, and talked quite intelligently about a number of things.

Like quite a few innovative thinkers, Boelcke’s writing only really comes alive when he’s describing his area of interest, aerial combat. Over the next few diary entries, we’re going to consider the principles he’s just outlined in his Dicta Boelcke, which will soon be required reading by all German pilots. Principle 1:

Try to secure advantages before attacking. If possible, keep the sun behind you.

Of course, it’s harder to see anything when looking into the sun than when looking away from it. By “advantages”, he’s referring to a number of different factors (speed, height, surprise, and performance, among others). The more you have, the more likely you are to be successful. Boelcke was scrupulous about not attacking unless the situation was favourable.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman is spending long days training at the Bull Ring, Etaples Base Camp. Evenings are his own, and the nearby seaside town, known either as Le Touquet or Paris-Plage, was a favourite haunt of artists in the quarter-century before the war.

We might be in England. Someone has had the good taste to open a tea-shop in Paris-Plage that, but for its military customers, puts the thought of camps and army routine a thousand miles away. The cretonnes about the windows are in strong simple colours, and the china might have come from a Cottage Tea Room. Half a dozen of us have walked and trammed to Paris-Plage solely for the luxury of feeling English civil ease again. What creatures of environment we are! We could buy the same food in the [Officers’ Mess] for half the money; yet no one would mistake us for dilettanti.

There is little attraction about Paris-Plage itself. The front is deserted: the normal life of the place is suffering war repression. Like every English seaside town during the war, Paris-Plage wears by daylight the fancy dress of last night’s dance. We wander round and the time hangs heavy on our hands. Nothing is more desolate than forsaken gaiety. Let’s jump on the little tram and go back to camp.

Cretonne is a heavy fabric often used in curtains. And, of course, Le Touquet has been reserved for officers. Other ranks are restricted to the other side of the river, in Etaples itself, which is rather less salubrious. Plowman won’t be here much longer.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson, you’ll be shocked and appalled to hear, is not only malingering, but also arsing around with his mates.

Pretended I was ‘indisposed’ so stayed in bed to miss roll call. Had breakfast in bed. Had a shave before parade which was a bathing one preceded by ‘surprise attack’ tactics. Had some naked races along the sands then a fine bath. ‘Baai’, a porter, got cuts for refusing to carry ammunition boxes. Heard the sergeant and colonel of the East African machine guns were shot for refusing duty and others given long terms of imprisonment. Got our orders for marching tomorrow.

Laid our waterproofs when Pintlebury came in and started a ‘rough and tumble’, making our blankets and ground sheets in a frightful mess. After he left we paid him a return visit and ruffled his tent, and 6 of them packed on to 4 of us.

Well, that was a quick swing from naked horseplay to reputed executions.

I say “reputed” because if there was an execution, the men do not appear in the official list of 346 executed men. (Of course, neither did Henry Pedris…) It’s also deeply, deeply unlikely that a colonel would be tried, never mind executed (of the official list, only three officers were shot, all of them second lieutenants; although Pedris was a captain). But who knows what lurks deep in the archives? It may be just another latrine rumour. Or it may not. And it’s almost entirely overshadowed the casual reference to what seems to be the brutal physical punishment of an African porter. What a cheery day.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge may not be a particularly good soldier, but he’s at least learned how to complain like one.

This morning a lynx-eyed officer discovered there were some weeds around his tent. At once a powerful fatigue-party of ten was detailed off to pull out the tares sewn by the Evil One. Must have been a [bloody] Hun, that “enemy!” We did the work most carefully. The first non-commissioned officer who had charge told us to pull out the weeds. When he grew tired of directing the complex and difficult operations and went to “see a man about a dog,” his successor ordered us to cut the weeds. The third NCO asked us to cut only the points.

Thereupon I used my scissors, whilst one of the men, a professional barber, instructed me in the gentle art of appearing busy. At intervals we asked the NCO, “What is a weed?” “Is this a weed?” Which cross-examination he did not like, but since there were some quaint flowers in the Officer’s garden, sown, not by the Evil One, but by a Captain with visions of Kew, the botanical lore of our NCO was sorely taxed. In the afternoon we had to scrub the officers’ tents.

As an aspiring literary type, Mugge is surely familiar with not doing much work. However, the concept of having to pretend to work to divert unwanted attention is a new one. The techniques have changed in the 21st century to meet the changing needs of the Army; the basic object, however, remains the same.

And we scrubbed! We swept and swabbed, we mopped and scoured. We scrubbed the wooden circular flooring of ever so many tents. It was hard work and aggravated by the total lack of utensils. You had to wait for the chaps in the next tent who used the one sound brush available whilst yet others bullied you for the one piece of soap and the hot water without which they could not start. There is a rumour about that tomorrow the sand will have to be dusted and that all the tents in the Division here, some three hundred, will have to be whitewashed. I am convinced it’s just an invention of the cooks.

The office people tell me that the War Office Practical Joke Department have not yet answered my application for a transfer to the Interpreters’ Corps. It is not fair to shut up like that. Hitherto each application, though not eliciting a real reply, has at least resulted in my transfer to another regiment. Now I seem to be a limpet.

Well, they’ve already thrown him into the Non-Combatant Corps and then pulled him out again. What else can they possibly do to him?

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive (Battle of Kowel)
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Bitlis

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide

Taking stock | 31 July 1916

Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme is one month old. It’s been a long bloody month. I think I’ve said about all that can possibly be said about July on the Somme. Let us just round it off with a couple of observations from the big bosses. Interestingly, both General Joffre and General Haig are doing the same thing; they’re hectoring a subordinate.

Joffre is primarily concerned for the prospects of future cooperation with the BEF. He’s been getting a lot of messages recently from Generals Foch and Fayolle, repeating the earlier themes of the English amateurs who simply don’t know what they’re doing. The men on the spot are both angling for an independent attack to capture Peronne and its road and rail junctions. In strict strategic terms it is probably the correct decision, but Joffre must also consider politics and the need not to offend allies who they will need next year

The fundamental intention of the Somme offensive must continue to be supporting the British attack in the north. Our offensive in the south must remain secondary or subordinate to the results obtained in the north.

It will, of course, be much easier for Joffre to organise another big push to coincide with Romania’s entry into the war and the next battle of the Isonzo (of course that’s coming) if it can be presented as “we all attack together!” rather than “you get on with it, and we’ll get on with it”. There’s a big conference being planned at a chateau near the Somme. King George V and President Poincare will be attending, and there will of course be a spectacularly gluttonous dinner, no small task when General Joffre’s appetite is in town.

Haig and Rawlinson

After a month of falling short of objectives, General Haig is writing an extensive position paper. It would probably be slightly unfair to call it an extended bollocking for General Rawlinson. That’s not all that’s there. But there is plenty of it there.

To enable us to bring the present operations (the existing phase of which may be regarded as a ‘wearing out’ battle) to a successful termination, we must practice such economy of men and material as will ensure our having the ‘last reserves’ at our disposal when the crisis of the fight is reached, which may—and probably will—not be sooner than the last half of September.

The first necessity at the moment is to help the French forward on our right flank. For this we must capture Guillemont, Falfemont Farm and Ginchy as soon as possible. These places cannot be taken, however—with due regard to economy of means available—without careful and methodical preparation. The necessary preparations must be pushed on without delay, and the attack will be launched when the responsible commanders on the spot are satisfied that everything possible has been done to ensure success.

He also includes explicit instructions not to attack anywhere else…but they are allowed to conduct prepatory works for another offensive. I smell loophole. Watch that space. We’ve also got some instructions for Reserve Army, instructing them to attack only to capture Pozieres windmill.

The operations outlined above are to be carried out with as little expenditure of fresh troops and of munitions as circumstances will admit of, but in each attack undertaken a sufficient force must be employed to make success as certain as possible, and to secure the objectives won against counter-attack. Economy of men and munitions is to be sought for, not by employing insufficient force for the objective in view, but by a careful selection of objectives.

If only winning a battle were as simple as ordering the Army commander “Don’t fuck up” and leaving him to get on with it. These are not easy orders to follow. It’s like cooking for Goldilocks. Hurry up, but not too much. Prepare properly, but don’t dawdle. General Rawlinson is left to hold a conference to make some sense of these orders. I’ll not hold my breath.

Haig’s diary, meanwhile, is fabulously dull. There’s then a little space, and then an additional note, apparently added not too long afterwards.

OBJECTIVE
The war must be continued until Germany is vanquished to such an extent as to be obliged to accept whatever terms the Allies may dictate to her.

As far as we know, this has simply occurred to the Chief in his thoughts. As far as I know, this is the first time since 1914 that anyone has considered what “victory” might mean, and what it might look like. What a way to end one of the bloodiest months of the war.

Max Plowman

The engine of war continues ticking over. Max Plowman is training in the Bull Ring at Etaples, which by law I must refer to as the “notorious” Bull Ring.

We are on our way to the Bull Ring: two hundred of us, officers who have not been to the Front and are therefore due for a course of intensive training till some battalion of our regiments shall require us. Here we are, slogging along under the command of a captain, back in the ranks again, carrying rifles. This appears to be an indignity to some of these fellows; but it does not trouble me, for I have no gift for the assertion of authority, and find it easier to obey army orders than to give them. The responsibility of command is an effort which diverts thought from what are much more natural, if useless, channels.

These huts to our right and left are hospitals. And what is that, looking like an ungrown hopfield? A British cemetery, Lord! How many have died already! The ground is smothered with wooden crosses.

We march on in the heat till we come to a great open sandy arena. Out on to this plain we file, and now we are put through physical jerks by officers who have risen from the regular ranks; and now are drilled by sergeant-majors who have been chosen for this duty presumably by virtue of the harshness of their voices and the austerity of their manners. It is hot work, and there is a fierce, vindictive atmosphere about this place which makes its name of “Bull Ring” intelligible.

Later we climb up among the sand dunes on the other side of the road, and there practise firing rifle grenades and throwing those small egg-shaped cast-iron missiles known as Mills bombs. Here too we learn more of the methods of gas attack and defence, and practise the art of shoving our heads quickly into the clammy flannel bags that are dignified by the name of PH helmets. We finish the morning’s work by running obstacle races over a prepared course back on the arena.

In other times, all signs of our activity banishe’d, these sand dunes must make a place of delightful holiday. Even to-day one’s eyes wandered instinctively toward the blue estuary that lay below us, where the tiny white sail of a yacht moved slowly up-stream.

Yes, he actually wrote “banishe’d”. It’s funny; when he’s pleasing Columbo and giving us just the facts, he’s got a real talent for this “memoir” lark. Then he starts trying to write Literature and he sounds like a massive, massive berk, and I just want to poke fun at everything he says. He is right that in peacetime, Le Toquet is a well-to-do beach resort of considerable reputation, mind.

The PH helmet, by the way, has now of course been superceded by the Respirator Small Box. However, like the steel helmet, the modern respirator is issued as trench stores only, left up the line by units who are going back to rest for the next lot who are following them. There aren’t enough spare for people to train with them.

Neil Tennant at Basra

Lt-Col Neil Tennant of the Royal Flying Corps has now arrived at Basra. On the way, he’s not been surprised to see a steady stream of hospital ships sailing the reverse route to India. He starts, of course, by whinging about the heat, and quickly moves on to whinging about everything else.

The place is famous at least for its climate; the humid heat hangs heavy on the lungs, everything is saturated, ink runs on the paper, and matches will barely strike. Endure the day, but the night brings no relief. There is no freshness in a Basra summer, and the ravages of prickly heat, mosquito, and sand-fly combine ‘to shrivel all impulse and desire. The town and its surroundings are intersected by canals and lagoons, and densely sown with date palms.

I had an interview with General Sir Percy Lake, and was generally busy learning the situation. The staff at GHQ looked tired and washed out, the result of long office hours in the hot weather. The strength of the RFC at this time in Mesopotamia was one skeleton squadron at the Front, and an Aircraft Park at the base. There was also a Kite Balloon section of the Royal Naval Air Service under Commander Wrottesly.

Here such arrears of work had accumulated that it was hard to know where to begin, and the men who were left had little life in them. It was only possible to work in the hours of dawn, for by nine o’clock the sun was getting up, and any remaining energy was necessary for bare existence. A large percentage of our staff were sick, the hospitals were overflowing, and very few reinforcements arriving in the country ever reached their units, but went sick at Basra, taking up valuable room in hospital that was needed for men evacuated from the front.

Lack of labour was seriously holding up the unlading of stores urgently required by the force up river; coolies were few and difficult, and troops were not to be spared from drafts for the fighting forces, fifty per cent, of whom had gone sick. The congestion of shipping in Basra harbour, as a result of this, was serious at a time when all the Empire’s resources in tonnage were necessary to fight the submarine menace. Some ships had been lying in harbour for months, and it was said that others had returned to India, having only cleared a portion of their cargo in order not to waste time when there was any space available.

Nine new aeroplanes which had been waiting a month to be unloaded were not got ashore till several weeks later. The base at Basra seemed to be congested with stores of every description, yet owing to lack of labour and shallow draft river transport, the fighting force were hard pressed to maintain themselves.

But it seems like he’s still justified in moaning. If things are like that now, imagine what it must have been like at the height of the Siege of Kut! Ye gods.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson still has no official orders to move, so takes himself off to find some entertainment, visiting an abandoned Schuztruppe position outside Kondoa Irangi. Of course, where one finds bored soldiers, one also finds bad life decisions…

Saw the observation post and the splendid look-out it held, also the well-dug trenches. Pieces of our shells were lying all over the place and there were many big holes which they had made. Saw the first howitzer shell that was fired and didn’t burst. Picked up a good many shrapnel balls then started back for home. Took some time to pick the black-jacks out of my puttees. … Hassett got hold of some kaffir beer and, after imbibing some, got very excited so we had a sing-song in his tent. In the middle of the proceedings the tent nearly caught alight amid great excitement.

This is beer is brewed from millet, known to the South Africans as kaffir corn because it’s what the black Africans grow. Oh, those loveable cheeky self-immolating racist chappies! If only all racists could be so obliging.

Incidentally, they haven’t heard the news, but after just about riding his horses and his men into the ground, General van Deventer is now at Dodoma on the Central Railway. They’re all horribly tired and unfit, and two men and a dachshund could probably have captured the entire South African Horse. However, Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck’s men have been forced to scatter to avoid their advance, and they’re off in the middle of nowhere trying to get themselves back into some kind of order, having just been pushed off their railway. As long as the South Africans can get some supplies forward and they don’t all starve, which is far from guaranteed, this is a major coup.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Let us now have a last horror of war to see the month of July out. It starts well enough; they’re being relieved. Unlike the life of an infantryman, full of marching up the line and back from the line and up the line again, a gunner stays in his gun-pit in the same area of country for months or more at a time. In a hot sector like the Somme, Fraser-Tytler’s men have been working hard with very little respite since the New Year. Aside from the odd week’s leave, this will be the first time since January that they’ve had any real guaranteed rest.

I lunched with Peter Fraser-Tytler at his battery, and then went to see Victor Walrond, who commands a battery in the same division.

This will be the last time our correspondent sees his brother alive. On the 3rd of August, he’ll be killed by counter-battery fire near Montauban, somewhere close to the positions that our man is just quitting. He returns to his battery, but. Weak stomachs and large animal lovers should probably look away now.

Just as I reached the road behind my position, three passing gun teams were done in by a single big shell. I finished off as many of the horses as I could with a revolver, which I took from a very erratic-shooting subaltern. … An orderly bringing a message had come up with two horses and was holding them beside one of the gun-pits. I was just thinking of sending them away, when I heard a close shell coming and jumped for safety into the mess at the bottom of the 12-inch shell-crater. As soon as the shell had burst, I looked out just in time to see a red lump rising out of a red pool.

It was the horse-holder. I pulled him into one of the dugouts and got a party to clean him and then report damages. He was practically untouched, and he told them that he lay down with reins in hand when he heard the shell. It must have burst on the back of one of the horses, as there was no crater. As soon as the shelling stopped, we began to clean up, finding one head, three legs and one hindquarters at distances up to a hundred yards. The remainder of the two horses was in small fragments over the whole position. It was indeed indescribable.

The horse holder seemed quite unshaken, and having been fitted out with clean clothes, went back on foot. The rest of the afternoon did not pass with the same good luck. Captain Stevens, Officer Commanding the next battery, got knocked over by a big shell. Although apparently untouched, he died of shock an hour later. Then a few minutes later, Gibbs, commanding the battery in front of us, was fatally wounded while trying to get his teams out of the position.

I am the only battery commander left out of the five neighbouring batteries. I remember I always used to say jokingly that crawling about with a telephone in No Man’s Land was safer than staying at the guns.

And so ended July 1916. May we never see its like again.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive (Battle of Kowel)
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Bitlis

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide

Unexpected changes | Somme | 22 July 1916

I am going to try a little experiment today and format everything back to front, so we’ll start with the rear-area personal account and finish with the third-person report from the Somme. There is a reason for this, just bear with me a moment.

Neil Tennant

Lt-Col Neil Tennant of the Royal Flying Corps has now arrived at Mumbai (which then was Bombay), where he will spend a few days acclimatising before re-embarking for Basra.

The place at this time was a busy base for the forces up the Persian Gulf and in East Africa, and was not lacking in lurid details of either. There seemed to be little encouraging about Force D. General Gorringe had gone home for an enquiry; 60%, of the force were sick and 15,000 invalided out of the country in June; half rations at the front due to insufficient transport; and new river transport despatched from Calcutta by sea, instead of being shipped in sections, had either gone to the bottom in the monsoon or been forced to return for repairs; no fresh food; our cheerful friends gave us a month in the country.

Bombay is unpleasant at the height of the monsoon. The rain lashes down on to the pavement and rises up in steam; an electric fan at night just keeps one dry.

Some of this is embellished, but much is not. There’s clearly no hope of an offensive in Mesopotamia any time soon.

Max Plowman

2nd Lt Max Plowman is settling in for an indeterminate period of training at Etaples Base Camp.

The tents in this camp are uncountable. All the way down this sandy slope, up the next hillock and down over the other side, beyond, away and on all sides they stretch, interspersed here and there with more solid buildings: canteens, army ordnance depots and YMCA huts. It is a city of canvas whose inhabitants are always changing. Men and officers, they are here to-day and gone to-morrow. We are all waiting. A batch of Somersets arrived last night. To-day they belong to the Black Watch and have gone up the line in kilts. The casualties since July 1st have been too heavy to allow every draft to go to its own regiment.

Off parade there is little to do. We write letters: eat and drink in the mess: talk or play cards in the hut. And whether we like it or not, we listen to the eternal gramophone. At every hour of the day, and half the night, some gramophone is going. Up the slope the pitiful wail is carried on the breeze:

If you were the only girl in the world,
And I were the only boy…

A pathetic hymn before battle. Yet it serves as a reminder that, under many layers of treacly sentiment, the human heart still beats: even this war cannot remove that organ. Nero did well to play the fiddle: the gramophone is our best substitute.

The song is bang up-to-date; it was first performed only three months ago, and it’s already on gramophones in France. It opens The Bing Boys Are Here, one of the most popular West End shows of the war, particularly with soldiers on leave. (The odd reference to the Bing Boys has already started to pop up in some personal accounts.)

Oskar Teichman

Tensions are high on the Suez Canal, but Oskar Teichman finds the time, as many have before him, to admire the capabilities of Ottoman soldiers.

At 7.30 an “aviatik” came over, evidently observing and counting us; he was signalled to Kantara, and one of our battle-planes came out, but by this time the former was on his way home. In this camp the alarm consisted of three blows on a whistle, following which all the horses were taken off the lines. Then another three whistles and all horses were taken outside camp.

During the day we procured a few tents, as wehad come without any transport and our only shelter from the sun consisted of one horse-blanket each. The Turks were evidently in a good position, and it was wonderful how quickly they had crossed the 47 dry miles from El Arish to Bir El Abd. We were now part of a mobile column, consisting of the Gloucester Yeomanry, the New Zealand Mounted Rifles,two [Royal Arse Hortillery] batteries and ourselves, and were ready to “strike” at a moment’s notice.The idea apparently was to lure the Turks onto our defences at Romani and Dueidar.

Later in the day two of our officers rode over from Kantara and we heard about the prisoners who had already been sent down; the latter stated that Romani was to be attacked and the railway and [water] pipe-line cut. We were ordered to send out mounted patrols day and night to guard both of these. We were informed that the mobile column would strike when the Turks crossed the line Romani – Dueidar.

The Aviatik company has designed a series of planes for the German army; they’ve made a specialty of producing observation planes.

Emilio Lussu

On the edge of the Asiago plateau, Emilio Lussu’s regiment is planning to attack once more. Lussu himself has recently saved his men from being sent out on idiotic wire-cutting expeditions by the simple expedient of hiding the battalion’s wire-cutters. But don’t worry, here now is the divisional commander with a new toy. Sort of. They were first used last year on the Carso, to absolutely no effect. But apparently it’s not enough for the men to die hopelessly; they should also look stupid while doing so. Yes, we’re back to body armour.

“These are the famous Farina cuirasses”, the general explained to us, “which are known only to the few. They are especially celebrated because they make it possible to carry out risky operations in the full light of day. It’s a shame there aren’t more of them! In this entire army corps there are only eighteen of them. And they are ours! Ours!”
Next to me was a group of soldiers. One commented under his breath, “I’d rather have a canteen of good brandy.”
“We alone”, the general continued, “have been granted the privilege of having them. … The Farina cuirasses can go anywhere!”
“Anywhere, in a manner of speaking,” observed our colonel, who was in a heroic mood that day. He had the physical stature of a giant, and a huge family fortune – two imposing qualities.

There is then a demonstration of the new armour, a hundred pounds’ worth of solid steel, covering the men from knees to top, including a stupid visored helmet. Eighteen men go out. A machine-gun fires. Eighteen men fall dead in No Man’s Land. The rest of the regiment will be attacking soon. And now they’ve lost their eighteen cuirasses.

Battle of Verdun

Morale is running high at Chantilly and Bar-le-Duc. A series of official intelligence assessments has concluded that the Germans have withdrawn significant levels of personnel; infantry, artillery, and aeroplanes. The pressure is officially off and Verdun is safe for the forseeable future. True, all those men have to go somewhere, but since this will probably end up being the Somme, n’est ce pas une problemme, oui? And anyway, isn’t it about time the damned English got a taste of what the French have had to face since early 1915?

This is also allowing General Joffre to revise the schedule for sending men to Verdun, and decrease the commitment. Robert Pelissier and Louis Barthas have both heard rumours of late that they might soon be off to the Somme, and there’s a reason for that. Had Pelissier come out of the Vosges in March, he would almost certainly have been on the Mort Homme in April.

Battle of the Somme

You know what this quote offensive unquote needs? A last-minute change of plan, that’s what it needs. This one comes courtesy of the Royal Flying Corps, who yesterday were able to do the first proper photographic recces in nearly a week. No Man’s Land is often several hundred yards wide at the moment, often with multiple rises and falls to interfere with direct observation. (This is why it’s so important to get as high as possible, and to capture Pozieres and its conveniently-located windmill.) Consequently, neither the blokes nor the staff have much of an idea what conditions will be like during the attack.

Now, as we saw last week at Bazentin Ridge, this is absolutely not a guarantee of failure at zero hour. On the other hand, you know what might have been? If the Germans had dug a whole new trench a few hundred yards in front of the Second Line without anybody finding out. And guess what they’ve now gone and done in front of the Flers-Martinpuich switch line? Yeah, that’s right, they’ve dug another trench out in front. It’s neither particularly deep nor particularly wide nor blessed with the copious barbed wire that guards Fromelles. But it’s a trench, and the enemy is clearly occupying it.

This information has arrived at about the same time as a rather airy message from the French, who are supposed to be joining in with an attack towards Leuze Wood and Combles. What with all this bad weather, and not enough roads to move too many men about, they will not be ready to join in with a combined push on the 23rd. Instead they will be pleased to join in on the 24th, which should afford them enough time to properly register the guns. Perhaps our noble allies might consider doing the same?

At this point, pretty much every staff officer with 4th Army has his own individual panic. Either they’re worrying about this new intermediate trench, or trying to decide what to do about the dratted French, or both. And decisions have to be taken as quickly as possible so that revised orders can be drawn up and sent forward, and the men are supposed to be going over the top before even the quickest revisions can reach them. The obvious answer, surely, is postponement. But Pozieres must be taken as soon as possible; and they have a dangling flank without an attack at High Wood; which has a dangling flank without attacks at Longueval…

There are to be attacks on High Wood tonight, but I think it’s better to take them tomorrow with the rest of the offensive. Anyway, down at the sharp end, Lt H.G. Wood of the 1/7th Worcestershires has a complaint. His battalion has been to Ovillers, where there’s been a little skirmishing as the BEF consolidates control of the village.

In his last trench on the outskirts of the village [the Germans] left a number of wounded, all of whom were agreed that they had had a damnable time. Here I collected all the Germans who could in any way hobble along and sent them back to our brigade dressing station. Would you believe it our damned brigade staff cursed the man in charge of the escort for not sending them down on stretchers. I only wish I had been there. I would have let the blasted maniacs have a bit of mind.

As if we were not already busy enough dealing with our own wounded and carrying them back, and using every available man we had got to man the trenches as we collared them. It is this sort of damned impudence from people sitting on their haunches miles in the rear, who not only have no idea of the conditions and strain under which people are working up in front, but also are too idle to come up and find out, which makes the regimental officer despise the staff.

And then when the red tabs do come up the line, there’s soldiers just lining up with stories along the lines of “has the bastard never seen a dead man before?”

Haig and the ANZACs

General Haig is, like many men before him, not entirely sure about these ANZAC fellows. Though his only direct experience with the men has been in the formal setting of an inspection parade, he’s seen enough of their staff to be concerned that they have a lot to learn about war in general and the Western Front in particular. And of course he will have heard plenty of anecdotes about the men’s lack of respect for social status, and lack of deference to their officers. Now General Gough is going to use the Australian 1st Division, the Gallipoli veterans whose survivors landed at ANZAC Cove on that first day, as part of the push on Pozieres from the west.

I visited General Gough after lunch to make sure that the Australians have only been given a simple task. This is the first time that they will be taking part in a serious offensive on a big scale. Gough does not think very much of General Morland commanding the X Corps. This is no time for having doubts, so I told him that I will arrange to withdraw Morland into Reserve and give him General Jacob in his place.

After the war, Haig then saw fit to add another observation to the decision to sack Morland. “Personally, I found Morland one of our best brigadiers at Aldershot.” Well, yes, he was a promising young chap ten years ago, I’m sure. On the other hand, it was X Corps who attacked Thiepval and the Schwaben Redoubt on the 1st of July. Which did not meet with complete success, and I can understand why Gough might not be terribly enthusiastic about having that bloke working under him in future.

Oh yeah, there was something else. That second sentence is one of those annoying things that is both completely correct and yet also highly objectionable. Sure, by comparison, nothing that happened on Gallipoli would count as “a serious offensive” or “on a big scale”, compared even to the Battle of Loos. Those who remember the detail of the summer offensive last year will remember the ANZACs producing over-complicated and unrealistic plans, too.

But still! How condescending can you get? And anyway, me laddio, where do you get off telling people they’re shit at war and need adult supervision? Who did you ever fucking beat? The BEF might be in the middle of the biggest British territorial gain since 1914, but they’ve taken nearly a month (and about 120,000 casualties) to move that legendary drinks cabinet five miles. Berlin’s still 570 miles away. At this rate of advance, the war will be over by Christmas 1925 and leave 17,920,000 men killed or wounded.

Which, incidentally, is more than the adult male population of Britain. The 1911 census recorded 17,445,608 males. Assuming that 15% of them are under 14 (which is very, very roughly the ratio today), that leaves just under 15,000,000 men. And he’s pinning his hopes on the Germans running out of men first! Good luck with that. You arse.

drops mic, stalks off stage in search of a stiff drink

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Erzincan

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide

Mission creep | Somme | 21 Jul 1916

Battle of the Somme

I’ve been so caught up in shouting at British generalship over the last week that I’ve almost completely ignored a major French resumption of their offensive, which now comes to an end today. If there were more than the odd sentence written about it in English, I’m sure I’d have paid more attention. It’s not really gone very well, I’m sure there’s a joke about biting off more than they can chew. One corps south of the River Somme has moved a bit closer to Peronne, but only a few hundred metres.

But, get this. Generals Foch and Fayolle are keeping tight control over operations. Either the army is making a major assault, and everyone’s giving it the beans, or they’re using artillery to keep up the pressure on the enemy while keeping the infantry safe in their dugouts. Their casualties so far have been far fewer than their British partners, very roughly on par with those of the Germans. If there is ever going to be a good way to fight an attritional battle, the French 6th Army may well be on the path to figuring out how to do that.

Meanwhile, the British 4th Army is witlessly feeding another brigade into Delville Wood with little artillery support and orders to press on as hard as possible. The Germans are launching not-quite-as-witless but mostly ineffective counter-attacks. It’s quite remarkable how both armies have arrived at somewhat similar levels of futility (a word I’ve been trying my best to avoid using, but really it’s the only one that will do) by entirely different means. The Germans are struggling with bad doctrine; the BEF is just struggling with bad.

The next push

General Haig’s intentions for the next phase of the Battle of the Somme are now suffering from a terminal case of mission creep. A couple of days ago, the intention was to consolidate in the middle of the line while attacking on the far right, together with the French, around Guillemont and Ginchy, and also making a shove for Pozieres, on the Albert to Bapaume road. This shouldn’t have resulted in too much dilution of effort; the Ginchy operation will come from 4th Army, while Pozieres will be the first large attack for Reserve Army.

But then a succession of numbskulls in the rear have all put their hands up and said “oooh, me too”. The plan for the 23rd has now sprouted an attack to improve the position somewhere around High Wood, and then another attack to do the same thing between High Wood and Delville Wood. Then some other idiot has suggested “hey, why don’t we try to push all the way to that rotten switch line?” Then they’ve decided to bring that attack forward to 10pm on the 22nd, because clearly now night attacks are the solution to every single problem. Never mind that the artillery has barely any time to register on the next set of German trenches, and observation planes have frequently been grounded due to bad weather.

Oooooohhhhh, it makes me mad. I am just going absolutely red in the face and fixin’ to start screaming at people like Yosemite Sam when he gets all heated. If only one general on either side had had a quarter of the nous of Bugs Bunny, we’d all be a lot better off. Instead, it’s the Germans who are (inadvertently) playing the role of the wabbit. “Aha, I dare you to step over zis line.” “Okay!” “Now step over zis line.” “Okay!” “Now step over zis line!” Unfortunately, nobody appears to have provided them with a cliff to lead the BEF over. And wabbit season is open for a while to come.

The Chief

Speaking of Haig, here’s what he’s concerning himself with; he’s dropping in on General Rawlinson again.

We discussed the manner and time of attacking Enemy’s line north of the Bazentin-Longueval position. … It was decided that the attacks will take place as simultaneously as possible, and I went on to HQ Reserve Army to arrange with General Gough to attack Pozieres at the same time. The hour of attack is still under discussion. It depends to some extent on the time taken to get the troops into position.

Lord Northcliffe arrived today and stayed the night. I was favourably impressed with his desire to do his best to help to win the war. He was most anxious not to make a mistake in anything he advocated in his newspapers, and for this he was desirous of seeing what was taking place. I am therefore letting him see everything and talk to anyone he pleases.

Obviously this is some strange new definition of “simultaneously” that I wasn’t previously aware of. Lord Northcliffe owns The Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, and the Observer; in terms of influence, he was very much the Rupert Murdoch of his day. Murdoch’s father Keith, by the way, is even now working for his prime minister, Billy Hughes, on proposals to introduce conscription in Australia.

BEF Intelligence

BEF Intelligence is now getting stuck into a giant serving of humble pie, and doing so utterly without shame. It seems that not only has the German army been able to relieve every single division on the Somme and sent it somewhere else, with all the men they’ve fed into the battle, they now have three times as many men here as they did on July 1. They shouldn’t have been able to do this, but unfortunately the enemy was not included in that meeting.

Set against this, there are some promising signs on the subject of German morale and how damaged it’s been by the overwhelming British artillery bombardments. Captured communications and letters home are beginning to paint a not-inaccurate picture of an army that is starting to get fed up with sitting in a hole in the ground for a year and a half, waiting for someone 600 miles away to win the war for them, trying not to die. On the other hand, they’ve managed to make a classic balls-up of what should have been useful information.

Someone’s captured a copy of General von Falkenhayn’s order to hold every inch of ground and counter-attack mercilessly, on pain of court-martial. This should be a good thing, right? Well, let’s remember this thing called the Battle of Verdun for a moment. (About to burst back into life, incidentally.) The strategy of attacking and then letting the French beat their brains out against recently-captured positions hasn’t really worked out the way it should. But the Somme is a long way from Verdun, and they don’t realise how it’s gone there, and it is a very seductive line of reasoning…

Last thing to mention. The German occupying authorities in Belgium and northern France have just conducted a good old-fashioned round-up of suspicious characters. This one, it turns out, is much better-targeted than most. The British spy network in these critical areas has all but collapsed. GHQ had been relying on reports of troop movements and number of trains passing from locations such as Lille and Liege to build its picture of German deployments. Even with the intact network they’ve made a giant Horlick’s of it. Now they have to work from an exponentially smaller pool of information.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas! Old friend, good chum, devoted grognard. You’ve been summoned to a parade in front of General Gouraud. You’re going to do some manoeuvres for him. Then he’s going to lecture you. Please, my man, bring me a pick-me-up. I must have some snark. I demand to have some snark!

He looked quite no-nonsense, this general; around him swarmed officers bedecked with ribbons and medals who made themselves as stiff and attentive before their chief as they would be arrogant toward a subordinate. Our demonstration drills of attacking and defending a trench were crowned with success, as they always were on manoeuvres. Our firing onto targets which we’d carefully plotted out the night before were naturally deemed to be marvelous in their precision. All those present were astounded, or pretended to be. Then we listened raptly to the warlike thunderings of General Gouraud.

The Pope delivering a sermon at St. Peter’s could not have been listened to more respectfully than the general was, by this crowd. I could hear a cricket singing. Amazingly, I actually heard a few bits and pieces of the speech; a simple corporal couldn’t make his way up to the front row and plant himself right under the nose of such a lofty personage. The rifle was obsolete, he said, and would have to be relegated to the museum of prehistoric arms. We weren’t killing men one by one anymore; let’s talk about grenades, bombs, flamethrowers, machine guns, etc. With all that at our disposal, we’d soon have the Boches on the run.

At the end, the general said the Battle of the Somme was at full force and that the 4th Army “would soon be taking its turn and claiming its share of glory.” We didn’t doubt the accuracy of this promise.

Ahhh, that’s the good stuff. He’s off back to his battalion tomorrow, with his new 37mm pop-gun.

Oskar Teichman

Oskar Teichman has some fascinating observations on emergency drinking water in the desert. That’s not sarcasm. I love crunchy logistics questions like this. If an army can’t drink, it falls over and dies very quickly.

When it got light we found the Warwickshire Yeomanry, who had been here three weeks, camped close by. The following order was issued:

“It is forbidden to drink water from desert wells, which are nearly always polluted. At the same time it is recognized that there may be cases where it is unavoidable. … In order to treat water from the wells, each man will be supplied with one bottle of sulphate tablets; should a man find himself in such a position that he must drink well water, he will add two tablets to the contents of the water-bottle each time he fills it. He will then shake the whole thoroughly, and not drink the water until a full half-hour has elapsed.”

These tablets were issued to units, and when the occasion arose were extremely useful. Whenever it was possible, all water was properly sterilized by medical officers with chloride of lime. At this time the water allowance was good – one gallon per man per day.

Such observations are keeping his mind off the increasingly worrying estimates of enemy strength at the Suez Canal.

Alan Bott

Quick reminder: Alan Bott, of the Royal Flying Corps, has several times been warned to leave for France over the last two months; the date has been postponed three times. The subaltern-who-knows, in the officers’ mess, spent an extensive amount of time pooh-poohing the idea that they’ll be leaving for France on the 21st.

And at dawn on July 21 the battalion, battery, or squadron moves unobtrusively to a port of embarkation for France.

Whereas in most branches of the army the foundation of this scaffolding of postponement is indistinct except to the second-sighted Staff, in the case of the Flying Corps it is definitely based on that uncertain quantity, the supply of aeroplanes. The organisation of personnel is not a difficult task, for all are highly trained beforehand. The pilots have passed their tests and been decorated with wings, and the mechanics have already learned their separate trades as riggers, fitters, carpenters, sailmakers, and the like.

The only training necessary for the pilot is to fly as often as possible on the type of bus he will use in France, and to benefit by the experience of the flight-commanders, who as a rule have spent a hundred or two hours over Archie and the enemy lines. As regards the mechanics, the quality of their skilled work is tempered by the technical sergeant-major, who knows most things about an aeroplane, and the quality of their behaviour by the disciplinary sergeant-major, usually an ex-regular with a lively talent for “blasting”.

Oooh boy, time to get to grips with Royal Flying Corps slang. Sorry, Squadron Leader, I’m not following your banter! “Archie” was the original RFC phonetic alphabet word for the letter A, and refers to anti-aircraft guns (for the same reason that they’re more familiarly known as “ack-ack” guns; “Ack” is the Royal Artillery’s word. And, for some reason, these pioneering flyers often called their plane a “bus”.

They won’t be off to France for a few days still, but they are now moving to their point of departure.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman is now arriving at Etaples Base Camp. Maybe this one will give us a proper description of the Bull Ring at its height?

Dusk is falling as we detrain at Etaples. We have been a long time making the short journey, and are glad to shake our limbs after being wedged tight in those uncomfortable wooden carriages. We drop out by the side of the rails and scuttle up a sandy slope, where we report and receive details of our quarters for the night. We wander through a sea of canvas, our valises following, and now by the light of a candle unroll them on the wooden floor of a bell-tent. Zenu, Hill and two others share this tent with me. They are soon asleep. Even the longest day comes to an end at last.

A gramophone at a YMCA hut some way down on the side of this sandy hill is playing tunes from The Maid of the Mountains. It stops. Through the door-flap of the tent I can see the stars. Hill snores loudly as I get into my bag. What a release to feel alone and free from military busyness! Passionately I try to send waves of something deeper than thought across the estranging miles, and in the effort fall asleep.

More soon.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Erzincan

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide

Brusilov Offensive | Sunny Subaltern | 6 Jun 1916

Brusilov Offensive

The scale and design of the Brusilov Offensive is such that it only needs one relatively small success, quickly reinforced, to put the enemy in a whole world of hurt. Yesterday we had the small success; one Austro-Hungarian division in front of Lutsk was rudely thrown out of its trenches. This is not the Western Front. The scale of the front is such that the German system on the Somme, of three completely independent trench systems, each a few hundred lines behind the last, is impractical. They could have carried on digging for years and not completed the work for that.

And, as we also mentioned yesterday, with the Austro-Hungarians badly short of reserves, for once an attacking side is in a better position to follow up success than the defenders. The Russians are feeding more men through the trenches and turning left and right to attack the surrounding enemy from the side. It’s the kind of success that everyone in trench warfare dreams about, and few get to actually carry out. Bungling attempts at organising a counter-attack follow, and succeed only in wasting precious Army-level reserves. Yesterday it was an Austro-Hungarian division in trouble. Today it’s a corps. Tomorrow, the army? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility.

Battle of Mont Sorrel

The Sunny Subaltern and his mates are still in extreme difficulty at the Battle of Mont Sorrel. They aren’t even trying to attack. They’re just trying to get up to where the front-line trenches should be. In theory. Right now, they’ve got almost no idea about anything they can’t see.

Some few of us managed to crouch behind a hedgerow where, once a trench, was now a shambles. Here for the first time the really hell of the war came to me. That trench, or what was left of it, was con gested with dead and dying. Men crawled along, over dead bodies distorted beyond only the ken of one who has been there. We lifted wounded men a little to one side while from each turn of the trench came the heart-rending, throaty sob of dying. Ghastly! well, I don’t suppose there s a word been coined in English to describe it.

Meanwhile, shrapnel rained on its horrible hail, high explosive lifted sandbag and bodies house-high. Everywhere men lay half buried, gasping. Some, reason fled, climbed out only to be struck down a few yards away. And all this, kept up for what seemed aeons, but really was only about three hours. One chap, since dead, said to me, “I thought these devils were running short of shells. Well, I’d like to let some of those people at home feel this.”

Feel is the right word, for you “feel” a heavy bombardment. I care not how brave a man is, I say it reduces him to the consistency of a jelly fish.

The bombardment slackens, then intensifies, then goes somewhere else, then returns, then leaves. Planes go up, and soon flyers from both sides are fighting their own battle in the air, trying to get some observation and see where the enemy’s reinforcements are. The day wears on, far too slowly.

I sat and looked at a little triangular lake shimmering in the distance, and longed for some fish. I recollect resolving that when I got leave, the first meal in England would be fish. Looking back, I cannot remember that I ever doubted I would get leave, the idea never struck me that I might go on “The Long Leave”. So is the human brain constituted.

In mid-afternoon came word to proceed to counter-attack a certain part of the line. We gathered together the men and started off. It was a trip practically in the open as any trenches had been so battered as to be useless. From every direction came long files of men, all centralizing along a given line. I can’t remember the exact time the thing was planned for, but we started off.

Of course so did the artillery. Ours opened up, and if we got unutterable hell before so did the Germans now. However, they still had some ammunition, and the shells burst there! and there! and there!

And then-

And then, indeed. The Subaltern has been blown off his feet, knocked out, and badly wounded in the leg by a shrapnel shell. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he’s hauled away to the rear by some extremely brave stretcher-bearers. He has no memory of the next few days except a series of flashes, but he’s eventually alive and well and in hospital in London.

There was a further volume of his letters published, but their dates are extremely janky. From what I can make out, he recovered after about four months and went back to the front, but left again after about six weeks suffering from appendicitis, and never returned. Or possibly he did return, and then he died at Vimy Ridge or Passchendale. I don’t know either way, and I can’t find out at the moment. Believe what you’d rather. At any rate, his time in our story is very probably done.

And his battalion, at about three-quarter strength, eventually reaches where it’s going, and scrapes out another lot of holes to hide in. The war continues.

Battle of Verdun

The situation is now absolutely dire at Fort Vaux. Another relief attempt has gone in; another French battalion has gained valuable experience in what to do when shelled by Minenwerfers when crossing No Man’s Land (jump 200 yards in the air and scatter oneself over the surrounding countryside). With no water, the only thing Major Raynal and his men can do now is prepare for the end. Some of the men have now been reduced to drinking their own urine. Raynal’s memoir tells of other men licking condensation off the walls in their desperation for moisture.

There is a little comfort to be had; the sound of French guns, which spend most of the day attempting (with no little success) to blow the German attackers to bits. Battalions have lost more than half their men dead and wounded, and for the officers there’s no chance of another attack before they’re relieved. If only the French water tanks under Vaux had been full, there’s every chance they could have held out longer, at the very least. Maybe they could have stayed in the fort. Maybe not. Maybe it’s important whether they could have. Maybe not.

At any rate, a few parties of fit men will try to break out tomorrow, but for most of the defenders of Fort Vaux, the war is over.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas is due at least another month of rest after leaving Verdun. He’s been given five days; most of today is spent travelling to Suippes in Champagne, and just before midnight they’re settling into a reserve trench. And there’s even cause for just a little optimism!

The sector was calm, and compared to Hill 304 it was a vacation spot. But what spoiled the pleasure of occupying this peaceful sector was that it had recently seen a poison-gas attack, which had claimed many victims, and we feared another attack. We were going to live or die with this nightmare. Our section being in reserve, we occupied deep shelters, with two entrances, which made us ecstatic. This was the first time we had seen anything like this. Inside them, nothing to fear from bombardments—but it wasn’t the same for that accursed gas.

Even the French Army can now dig proper deep dugouts and allow the common soldiers into them. Will wonders never cease?

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien has been deposited unceremoniously in France, and without any of his kit, which has disappeared somewhere in transit between Cannock Chase and Etaples. When last we heard of Etaples Base Camp, a very long time ago, I was describing it as the world’s worst music festival. Things have changed quite a bit since then, and not for the better. The accomodations are slightly less temporary now, and it’s much more than just a transit camp. Etaples, among many other things, is by far the most notorious of a series of training camps that the million-strong BEF has created for itself.

Every day for the next few weeks, Tolkien and friends will be thrown into infamous Bull Ring, of which much more later. A vast area, sweeping over hundreds of acres of sand dunes, men and officers alike are put through a punishing programme of drill, route marches, musketry, and bayonet fighting. The instructors all wear yellow bands on their arms; they’re called “canaries” and have acquired a troublesome reputation for never actually having been to the trenches themselves. Discipline is extremely harsh, with heaping helpings of Field Punishment Number One. Morale is terrible.

I could go on, and we’ll hear further reports from Etaples in the fullness of time. However, for now, I think that as good a description of any of the atmosphere at Etaples comes near the end of The Lord of the Rings. While in Mordor, the disguised hobbits are forced briefly to double-time with a band of orcs.

‘Come on, you slugs!’ [the orc] cried. ‘This is no time for slouching.’ He took a step towards them, and even in the gloom he recognized the devices on their shields. ‘Deserting, eh?’ he snarled. ‘Or thinking of it? All your folk should have been inside Udûn before yesterday evening. You know that. Up you get and fall in, or I’ll have your numbers and report you.’

The offending orc then says “Don’t you know we’re at war?” Those are words right out of some horrible 1916-vintage drill sergeant’s mouth. The influence doesn’t end there, too. Remember how a few days ago we flagged up the problem of the Rifle Brigade quick-marching everywhere and causing traffic problems? The hobbits escape because their company gets caught up in a major traffic jam that quickly turns into a thousand-strong argument. If Tolkien never had something similar happen to him at some point, then I am a monkey’s uncle.

E.S. Thompson

News from Europe has reached Kondoa Irangi and E.S. Thompson, who is still in hospital after slopping boiling fat down himself.

Most agonizing having my leg dressed and it was painful for a long time following. The medical orderly said the leg was in much better condition than before. … During the afternoon 2 aeroplanes arrived. They could be heard a long while before coming into sight. No guns fired during the day but we could hear a Maxim going. Read all afternoon. Usual tea. Got a rotten stomach-ache during the night. … The night orderly brought me a lovely cup of warm milk which was very acceptable. Heard our fleet had smashed the main German fleet.

I’m still quietly amazed that it’s only taken about four or five days for word of the Battle of Jutland to reach them.

Bernard Adams

Bernard Adams is still up the line, preparing for the Big Push. They’re getting intermittently strafed, and Adams is scuttling round the trenches, busy officering, when…

“Look out!” I heard a voice from behind. And as I heard the shell screaming down, I tumbled into the nearest dug-out. The shell burst with a huge “crump”. Then again another four shells burst together, but some forty or fifty yards away. I waited one, two minutes. And then I heard men running in the trench. As I sprang up the dug-out steps, I saw two stretcher-bearers standing looking round the traverse. And then there was the faint whistling overhead and they pushed me back as they almost fell down the dug-out steps.

At last, after a minute’s calm, we stepped out into the sunshine. I went round the traverse, following the two stretcher-bearers. And looking between them, as they stood gazing, this is what I saw.

In the trench, half buried in rags of sand-bag and loose chalk, lay what had been a man. His head was nearest to me, and at that I gazed fascinated; for the shell had cut it clean in half, and the face lay like a mask, its features un-marred at all, a full foot away from the rest of the head. The flesh was grey, that was all; the open eyes, the nose, the mouth were not even twisted awry. It was like the fragment of a sculpture. All the rest of the body was a mangled mass of flesh and khaki.

“Who is it?” whispered a stretcher-bearer, bending his head down to look sideways at that mask.
“Find his identity-disc,” said the other.
“It is Lance-Corporal Allan,” said I.

The same Lance-Corporal Allan who you might recall Lieutenant Adams briefly ogling yesterday. As you might expect, Adams doesn’t take it well. A long, pained series of observations comes to an end like so:

“Oh God! I shall go mad!” I thought, in the agony of my mind. I saw into that strange empty chamber which is called madness: I knew what it would be like to go mad. And even as I saw, came the thought again of those glittering eyes, and the ruthless answer to my soul’s cry: “The war is utterly indifferent whether you go mad or not.”

The junior officers sit in their dugout and try to come to terms with this. Straws are grasped at with reckless abandon.

“Thank God his mother never saw him as we saw him just now”, I said.
“If women were in this war, there would be no war,” said Edwards.
“I wonder,” said I.

As it happens, Flora Sandes says Adams is right and Edwards is wrong. Had he known it, it would surely be the smallest of small comforts. Nothing of importance has occurred.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago
Battle of Mont Sorrel
Brusilov Offensive

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide